1. A frigid lake
Our story begins along Lake Vygozero, one of Russia’s most northerly parts near its border with Finland. The terrain surrounding the lake during the winter seasons is hardly the most inviting – tundra-stricken and frigid as can be. The lake becomes covered in ice, and everything else in a blanket of snow.
As such, lake Vygozero becomes a hazard zone and most people avoid visiting during the winter months, but animals don’t have that luxury. When one mother bear was faced with a daunting dilemma, she had to act in a way that goes against everything we think we know about how wild animals behave.
2. A life-or-death decision
Human beings are accustomed to handily adapting to various climates – and with today’s technology, dealing with extreme cold or extreme heat is a relatively easy task for our species. Conversely, wild animals have to weather the storm the hard way. Survival to them literally means making life-or-death decisions on the spot.
In this case, a mother bear desperately needed to cross the nearly-frozen lake to reach the safety of the other side with her two small cubs. It was going to be a challenge, considering the winter weather lingers almost year-round in these parts. But being stuck on a single plot of frozen land wasn’t viable for the sleuth of bears. Unfortunately, the mother bear’s plan didn’t go quite as expected.
3. No other choice
It’s harder for animals to find food in the tundra. According to National Geographic, most bears feast on Salmon and various berries. In extreme cold, berries are harder to find and fish descend to the bottom of the lake where the water is warmer, making them harder to catch. The mother bear and her cubs simply didn’t have enough food on their side of the lake to survive.
She had to do something about it, and fast. Knowing she and her cubs had to make it across the lake, the bear made an executive decision. Freezing-cold or not, she would dive in and try her chances. With the weight of her two cubs on her back, would she make it to the other side of the lake?
4. Taking the plunge
The mother bear had no other choice – she threw both cubs onto her back and dove into the freezing-cold water. The land mass across from her was in-sight, and she would do what had to be done to get there. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, brown bears are known to be strong swimmers. But this was no simple task.
After the mother bear dove in with her cubs, she began swimming as fast as she could to get to the other side. But with every paddle, success became increasingly unlikely. As she faced the winds and strong currents, she began to fear the three wouldn’t make it. What would she do next?
5. Panic kicks in
Out of sheer panic, this mother bear did something that goes against our romanticized view of the mother-cub relationship in the wild. While many other animals would give their own lives for the sake of their children’s in a heartbeat, it appears this bear had a philosophy of her own.
Taking a more practical approach, she decided her only chance of surviving was to go it alone. She shook her cubs off her back and into the water. Then, she began making her way toward the other side alone. As it would turn out, her little cubs didn’t fare quite as well.
6. Swimming for their lives
Surely, the mother bear had hoped her little ones would pick up swimming quickly enough to paddle their way to the other side. As she made it to shore, she didn’t even look back to check on them. But learning to swim in a state of panic – while battling roaring winds and freezing water – isn’t exactly ideal.
Indeed, the cubs struggled. It’s impossible to know what exactly was going through their little heads, but the bears were used to having their mother around to protect them at all times – and now she had left them to drown. Would they even make it across? Their chances weren’t looking good.
7. Tossed around by the current
While their mother had already made it to shore safely, things didn’t quite go according to plan for the cubs. The current tossed around their small, untrained bodies around and they simply weren’t moving toward the shore. In fact, they began drifting away from it. Their mother didn’t seem to even flinch.
By now, the little cubs’ muscles were starting to tire and succumb to the cold water. They were paddling just to keep their heads above the water, hopelessly and without direction. What were they to do now? If their mother couldn’t help them, what else around the desolate lake could?
8. Drifting away
As the cubs were unable to keep up with the current, they began to drift away from both shores. It pushed them farther downstream, and farther away from their mother. It must have added to their panic, as bear cubs are very dependent on their mothers for survival in their early years.
So where were the young cubs headed? As it would turn out, the push downstream wouldn’t lead them where anyone would expect. It wouldn’t end up being a bad thing – quite the opposite. Soon, the two struggling cubs would catch the eye of another living thing on the lake.
9. Was it the end?
The cubs slowly drifted away from their mother and any chance of reaching a nearby shore – it must have seemed like the end for them. But in the distance, there was something else floating through the water. It was large and noisy. They couldn’t see it, but the current pushed them in its direction nevertheless.
The object, as it turned out, was a fishing boat with two Russian fishermen on board. Soon enough, the young bears came into the line of vision of two men. Who were they, and how would they react to the struggling little bears? As you’ll soon learn, that didn’t matter to the cubs in the heat of the moment.
10. To the boat!
Very quickly, the two cubs noticed the fishing boat in the distance. Of course, it’s unlikely that they had any idea what exactly the large object was, but it appears they could tell it was a solid surface onto which they could climb to get relief from the winter water.
From there, it became a race to the boat – the bears began paddling as fast as they could toward the boat, and with the current in their favor, they began making progress. The fishermen noticed the creatures racing toward them. In a state of shock, they weren’t sure what to make of the situation. How would they react?
11. Desperate for help
The Russian fisherman had intended to spend their day catching as many fish as they could and taking in the serenity and silence of the frigid body of water, and the bear cubs in front of them presented them with a dilemma that could potentially have thrown a wrench in their plans.
As the cubs approached their boat, it became obvious that the animals were in trouble. Gasping for air and swinging their paws in panic, it was becoming harder and harder for the bear pair to keep their heads above water. With literally no one else around, the men realized they had to do something.
12. A spark of empathy
The fishermen decided together that they were going to do something to help the two cubs onto their boat. The bears were, after all, living things in desperate need for help. The problem was that the men could see the mother bear hanging out on the side of the lake.
Of course, they didn’t know the mother had earlier abandoned her cubs, and even if they had, there’s no telling what she would do if she got the idea the fishermen were going after her babies. It all made them second-guess their plan. And there was another issue at hand.
13. Mother in the background
Female bears can be very territorial – especially over their cubs. As the altruistic fishermen were aware, they had to be very careful to wait for the mother bear to be distracted enough for them to make their move. She was pacing back and forth, and it appeared she was aware that her cubs were still in the water.
To add to that fear, they were unsure of how the cubs themselves would behave once they were on the boat with two human beings, creatures they had probably never even seen before in their lives. Eurasian brown bears can be quite aggressive – especially when they are frightened. But time was running out, and they decided to take the risk.
14. Steady, steady
Once the fishermen made their decision to help the bears struggling to survive before their eyes, they got their boat as close to the cubs as possible and considered the best way to go about pulling them onboard. They also had to go slow enough so they wouldn’t crash into them.
But before they were even able to do anything, the bears took matters into their own hands. One of the bears grabbed the side of his boat and tried to climb in on his own, and his brother followed suit – they seemed to really be desperate. But would the bear cub make it on his own?
15. The efforts begin
When the bears tried to pull themselves out of the water and onto the boat, it presented its rescuers with the ideal situation: they wouldn’t have to physically touch the animal, and yet it would be saved. But it didn’t work out that way. Unfortunately, the cubs weren’t strong enough to go it alone.
Especially after having struggled in the water for all this time, the animals were in a weak state. One of the men quickly grabbed a fishing net and tried to help haul the first bear up. Unfortunately, even that didn’t work! How would the bears get onto the boat if even the fishermen couldn’t help?
16. Teeth of steel
The fishermen put forward their best efforts to pull the helpless cubs aboard. Ultimately, though, the trick involved the bears themselves. The first cub realized he could simply clench his teeth on the side of the boat and hold himself out of the water! Like many mammals, bears have an incredibly powerful jaw that helps them do much more than eat and hunt.
In this case, the two bears discovered they could use their strong bite to hold up their bodies outside of the water – thus relieving their leg and foreleg muscles from struggling to stay afloat in the river for so long. Still, though, their bodies were faltering. Would it be enough to finally save them?
17. A moment of kinship
As the fishermen watched the precarious young animals holding on for their lives, one of the two experienced an emotional bonding moment with one of the bears. As he pulled the cub, he found it staring right back at him in the eye – it was as if he knew the man was helping him and appreciated it.
It was almost a moment of understanding between the two species: the men wanted to help, and the cubs were willing to receive the help they were getting. It was at this moment that the two men knew for sure they had made the right decision in deciding to help, and they weren’t going to give up until they were to succeed.
18. One last push
Now that the bears were able to at least hold on the boat strongly enough to stay still, the two fishermen were confident that they would be able to save them. They once again tried to give the first bear a push from behind with their fishing net. It was their last chance, and they put their all into it.
Alas, they finally managed to pull the first cub onto their small boat! With the same strategy, they were able to pull the second cub to safety shortly after. Shocked and gasping for air, the bears laid on the corner of the boat. But the question now was, what were the fishermen to do with them?
19. Two bears onboard
Cubs or not – having two loose bears on a small fishing boat sounds pretty terrifying. Of course, the fishermen felt the fear. As likely the only humans the cubs have ever encountered in their short lives, they weren’t sure how the animals would react. So they kept their distance at first, and remained calm.
But the bears, it seemed, were just relieved to be above the frigid water that almost killed them. They didn’t appear threatening in the least. Still, the fishermen knew they had to get the little guys off of their boat eventually – these aren’t the kinds of animals that make ideal pets. Where would they take them?
20. A closer look
While it was clear the bears were glad to be onboard, there is no question that they were still in a state of shock. The animals had just been abandoned by their mother early on in their lives and almost drowned. Still, they certainly didn’t seem to pose any kind of threat to their saviors.
As such, the fishermen felt comfortable to get a little closer to their new boat guests and examine their situation – and it didn’t look good. They were shaking from the cold winter breeze and trembling from their shock. The bears were likely confused too, as they had come into contact with something they had probably never seen before: a human being. What would they do with the little bears?
21. The lightbulb moment
It was hard for the fishermen to see the cubs in so much distress – after all, the bear has historically been a symbol and great source of pride for the Russian nation. They were more than content with their decision to save them, but by now they had reached the point at which they couldn’t help the bears much longer.
Bears are wild animals, and as such, they belong in the wilderness. As the men deliberated the best way they could help the animals return to their normal lives, an idea came to them. If they were able to return the cubs safely to their mother, things for the little ones would go back to the way they were before disaster struck. Was it possible?
22. The search begins
The fishermen began driving around the lake in search of a land mass on which they could drop off their passengers. They knew Lake Vygozero well, and they thought they would be able to find the bears’ mother on an island on which they suspected she lived. They were hoping to facilitate a family reunion.
Even though the mother bear had left her cubs to their own devices in the lake she had only done so out of necessity – it was likely pure survival instinct, as you’ll soon learn. Like females in many animal breeds, female bears feel a strong connection with their cubs and it’s likely she would welcome them back with open arms. The trouble came with finding the beast – and with the danger it might bring.
23. How would the mother react?
While the cub-saviors were certain the mother bear would be glad to have her offspring back, they weren’t sure how she would react to seeing to human beings carrying them. She could see them as a threat, and full-grown Eurasian brown bears can be deadly – especially females protecting their cubs.
In the end, they decided they’d take the risk but be very careful. Plus, it’s not as though they were guaranteed to find the partially estranged mother bear. Soon, though, they’d reach the island on which they suspected she was living. Would they find her there? The just couldn’t be sure.
24. Looking for trails
When the fishermen finally reached the island, they got out of their boat and stepped onto the land slowly and carefully. The men stopped for a moment at the shore, looking for bear trails and signals that the mother bear could have passed through the area. They didn’t see anything.
They waited for a moment – making any sudden movement or advance could be seen as a threat by the mother if she were around. They scanned the wooded area in the distance and still saw nothing. What were they to do with them now? The cubs had to have been missing their mother.
25. Time to say goodbye
After waiting for a while, the mother bear was still nowhere in sight. The fishermen had to say goodbye – there was no other choice. They lifted the cubs in their arms and made their way into the island. Then, something would happen that would thoroughly touch the two men’s hearts.
When they reached the point at which they could drop off the cubs, they put them down on the ground. Astonishingly, the bears were reluctant to let go! They had formed a bond with their savior. Eventually, they finally let go and began trekking forward, potentially in search of their mother. The fishermen were sad to leave too, but they knew they had done the right thing. And thankfully, they recorded the ordeal on the boat on camera, so they can watch it whenever they want.
26. It’s something bears do
This mother bear’s abandonment of her cubs might seem cruel to the human observer, but it has been well-documented that animals – including bears – do sometimes abandon their young if it’s necessary to remain alive. What might seem like a calculated decision to the human observer is really more of a survival instinct for many animals.
The bear in this story felt that the three of them had a better chance of survival if she had shaken them lose, so she did. There isn’t much more to it than that. Indeed, there have been documented cases bear mothers even eating their own when food is scarce or if their cubs are sick. But why would they do such a thing?
27. Again, it’s all about survival
There are many reasons for which a female bear would abandon or even kill her young. According to a National Geographic story published in 2014 on the topic, mother bears in the wild who give birth to unhealthy or significantly deformed cubs – or if food is too scarce – she will kill and eat them.
A mammal curator is quoted in the article saying, “They become a resource, one she can’t afford to waste…”. If her cub dies unintentionally, she will also likely eat it right away. In addition to providing her with more food, the act has the added bonus of preventing having a rotting carcass in her den to attract predators. And what about the male bears?
28. Bear behavior
It turns out female bears – and other mammals – aren’t the only ones who sometimes commit infanticide in the wild. Male bears will gladly kill other cubs to consume them, including their own. They don’t feel an attachment to their own cubs. Indeed, many times they won’t be able to tell others apart from their own.
That means cubs have a clear choice: stick around their mother until they’re old enough to defend themselves. Because, even though they’re not guaranteed safety with her, there’s a much higher likelihood of being attacked by their father if they enter his neck of the woods. Does all of this mean bear cubs don’t have protection from their father?
29. Mother Bear
Just because a mother bear will kill and consume her young when she is in extreme circumstances doesn’t mean she doesn’t care for them in most instances. From the moment cubs are born, mother bears nurse them and train them for adulthood. They also fiercely defend their youth from predator attacks.
That means even fighting off larger male bears – including maybe the cubs’ own father. Mother bears undoubtedly have a strong bond with their offspring, even if it’s not the same kind of bond a human mother has with her children. And what kinds of bears are found around Russia’s Lake Vygozero?
30. The Eurasian brown bear
Encyclopedia Britannica defines brown bears as shaggy-haired bears native to Europe, Asia, and northwestern America. In North America, they’re generally known as grizzly bears. Brown bears that populate northern Europe and Asia – and once also more southward, years ago – are known as Eurasian brown bears. They are highly dangerous animals.
Brown bears are widely distributed throughout the planet and have proven very adept in surviving extreme climates. Because Lake Vygozero is located along Russia’s border with Finland, it is highly likely that the bear cubs the fishermen saved from drowning were some kind of Eurasian brown bears. Maybe it’s a good thing the mother bear wasn’t around when they dropped off her cubs on land!